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Christians who observe the liturgical year are now a week into the four-week season of Advent. Advent (from the Latin "adventus," which means "to come") is a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus. Traditionally, Advent, like the season of Lent, lasted 40 days and had a markedly penitential and ascetical character. Advent was a season of prayer, fasting, self-denial and almsgiving in preparation for the celebration of Christmas and the coming of Christ into our world.
The season of Advent is in stark contrast to American popular culture, which also has a lengthy period of preparation for "the holidays." This season is upon us sometime before Halloween (although, the "holiday season" seems to begin earlier and earlier each year). The four weeks prior to Dec. 25, Advent proper, have been transformed into a prolonged anticipation of Christmas that has almost completely overwhelmed the season of Advent (even for those who try to observe it).
Nonetheless, Advent is an indispensible prelude to Christmas because this season helps Christians to enter more fully into the mystery of Christ's coming - as a past event, as a future event and as a present event.
Advent is an invitation to Christians to meditate on salvation history, on God's enduring covenant with the Jewish people and on the historical first coming of Jesus the Savior. For Christians, this past event is the very turning point of human history, when the Word became flesh in the person of Jesus, born to save humanity from the slavery of sin and death.
But this season invites us not only to ponder the past events that we will celebrate during the Christmas season, but also to prepare for a future event: the second coming of Jesus as our Lord and our Judge, which will bring history to a close.
Finally, Advent calls us as Christians to be attentive to the various ways in which Jesus comes into our lives at the present time. Christians believe that we meet Jesus at every moment in our neighbor, especially when he or she is in need. In Matthew's gospel, we read about how Jesus, coming in glory at the end of time, addresses the righteous: "Come, you whom my Father has blessed. Come into the kingdom prepared for you since the salvation of the world. For I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me to drink; naked and you clothed me; a stranger and you welcomed me; sick or imprisoned and you visited me."
The righteous will ask: "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; thirsty and give you drink; naked and clothe you; a stranger and welcome you, sick or imprisoned and visit you?"
And Jesus will reply: "As often as you did this for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me."
Generosity shown to the poor is not exclusive to Christians (far from it) but is shown by religious believers of all faiths and by people who may not be religious at all but are full of goodwill towards those in need. It should be a part of how all of us celebrate this season.
This Advent, I remember with gratitude the four American churchwomen martyred in El Salvador on Dec. 2, 1980.
In 1979 and 1980, as government repression grew increasing brutal and as El Salvador veered towards civil war, they chose to remain with the people they served. The security forces targeted them for abduction and death because they were "subversives" who provided food, shelter and clothing to impoverished refugees fleeing from the violence, and for their work teaching children and adults to read and write.
Three of these women, Sr. Maura Clarke, Sr. Ita Ford and Sr. Dorothy Kazel, belonged to Catholic religious orders. The fourth, Jean Donovan, was a lay volunteer.
They were attentive, despite the danger they lived with every day, to the presence of Jesus in the poor and those in need. May we imitate their example in the choices and the commitments that we make during this Advent season.
Charles Rohrbacher is a Catholic deacon at the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.